Former Senator Proves That Anyone Can Start a New Business, Even at 70

Age is just a number for Former Senator Nikki Coseteng as she shares how her love for collecting and kaftans led her to start Kaftan One during the pandemic.

When people turn 70 years old, most people think of living the simpler, quieter life of a retired senior citizen. But Nikki Coseteng is not like most people. First off, she is the former senator and congresswoman representing the third district of Quezon City. What’s more, she is the owner of the now-defunct Galerie Dominique. 

But at 70, the former politician is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, she’s added a new hat to the many ones she’s worn in her colorful life—that is, as the owner of her very own fashion label.

Growing Up in a Business-minded Family

Despite starting a new business at what people may say is a late stage in one’s life, Nikki Coseteng isn’t a stranger to business. In fact, she has been exposed to business almost all her life, thanks to her family. 

Her paternal grandfather, Eduardo Coseteng, was the co-founder of Equitable Bank, which became Equitable PCI Bank and eventually merged with BDO. As for Jose Marquez Lim, her maternal grandfather, he was an importer and exporter of food items and other products from Spain. 

Nikki’s parents, Emerson and Alice, were also involved in their respective businesses. Her father established major factories in the 1960s, including the assembly plant and distributorship of Honda Motorcycle Mariwasa Honda, Mariwasa Manufacturing Inc., and Porcelana Mariwasa—the manufacturer of world-renowned Noritake dinnerware. Her mother, on the other hand, established the Diliman Preparatory School in Quezon City. 

Given the environment she grew up in, it is no surprise that Nikki dipped her toes into business herself, albeit on a much smaller scale. “I started very early, I recall—selling buttons, wrapping paper, jeans, and even canned goods when I was in boarding school,” Nikki recalls fondly. “I enjoyed it because I met people and made many friends. I also had lots of extra spending money!”

From Art to Basketball, and Politics

When the 1970s and 1980s rolled along, times became much tougher—both on a national and personal level. “I remember interest rates were hovering around 28% to 35% per year,” the former senator recalls. “Scammers were bleeding the financial institutions dry, and I swore never to go into big business at all.” 

Despite all this, Nikki opened Galerie Dominique in the 1970s in her very own house, which was given to her by her maternal grandmother, Judith. “It sprung out of the love for art which I inherited from my mother who exposed us to classical music and the fine arts at very early stages of our lives,” she says. 

It was because of Galerie Dominique that she was introduced to her mom’s friends, who so happened to be some of the greatest artists the country has ever seen. Nikki credits the likes of Ang Kiukok, Juvenal Sanso, and Vicente Manansala for helping her set up the gallery. However, the economic situation led to the eventual closure of Gallery Dominique. 

“I also did not have the patience, desire, and tenacity to face adversity,” she admits. 

Her father also ended up suffering a stroke in the 1980s, which led her to focus on a venture outside her comfort zone. “I was asked to manage our company’s professional basketball team—the Mariwasa Honda in the Philippine Basketball Team,” she reveals. “I did [so] until his death in 1983 when I disbanded the team.” 

The decades before the new millennium also saw Nikki become more involved in what she calls “the struggle for freedom and social change”—even going as far as becoming a “serious full-time participant in the Parliament of the Streets” after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino. In fact, the late 1980s and the 1990s were when she entered politics. 

Starting a Business at the Height of the Pandemic

Nikki eventually stepped away from politics in 2001—the same year her mother died. “I kept to myself for almost a decade until I was asked to be President and CEO of Diliman Educational Corp [which] operated Diliman Preparatory School and Diliman College in 2007. That kept me very busy,” she shares.

That was until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. 

Just like everyone else, Nikki found herself staying home for two years. Eventually, she had to downsize and move from a sprawling house to a condo. The move made her realize that she owned a lot of fabric that she had collected through the years. 

Nikki admits that she loves collecting things. “It’s more the hunt—the discovery, the exploration, the unbelievable creativity of artists and artisans that fascinated me,” she explains. “I did not start collecting as an investment, although eventually, it came out to be so.” 

“I only bought what I liked and that was it. Whether textile, artwork, beads, books, artifacts, handicrafts, fashion, home decor, whatever,” she adds. “Oh! And of course, they had to be… affordable!” 

As for her collection of fabrics, the former politician says that she “always enjoyed collecting Philippine and other indigenous peoples’ textiles and fabrics—from the more exotic to the everyday sorts.” 

Nikki eventually wondered what she could do with her vast collection of fabric, which led her to come up with the idea of having them turned into kaftans. “I thought I could turn them into something useful,” she explains. “Also, my previous dressmaker needed work during the lockdown. That had to be addressed too.” 

Thus, Kaftan One was born. 

A love for collecting Philippine textiles and fashion, paired with an innate passion for the arts, led NIkki Coseteng to establish her own business: Kaftan One.

Why Kaftans? 

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a kaftan is “a long, loose piece of clothing with wide sleeves, of the type worn in Western Asia.”

But why kaftans? “I decided to do kaftans because there’s no need for them to fit women perfectly. Kaftans are comfortable, elegant, [and] loose clothing. So there’s no need to make adjustments,” Nikki says. “I, for example, can wear anything that is the equivalent of medium, large, XL, XXL to XXXL!”

She points out that “Kaftans have a basic design. Trims, lace, and other embellishments can be used on each one.” 

“I stick to the basic fabric with respect because I believe that if you have a class AAA fabric, you would not want to put all sorts of stuff on them,” Nikki adds. “I suppose it’s the same with food. Good food is great enough. No need to cover up and drown it in sauces.”

As for what kinds of fabrics can be turned into kaftans, the entrepreneur says that “All fabrics in my collection can be turned into Kaftans. From silks, jerseys, and chiffons to cotton and linens.”

“The whole world of fabrics would make excellent kaftans,” she points out. “I wear them flowing or stiff. Some fabrics are more rigid. I wear them too.”

Nikki also highlights the flexibility and versatility of kaftans, saying “I always tell my friends, many years down the road, a kaftan of top grade quality can still be converted, re-cut and re-sewn into a dress, a jacket, a blouse, a skirt, shorts, table cloth, placemat, etc.”

From the onset, Nikki made sure the kaftans sold by Kaftan One already stand out from the competition, describing them as “different from most ready-to-wear items in stores.”

“They are not sewn in factories. Not mass produced. I suppose it gives them a lower carbon footprint too,” she says of her kaftans, whose fabrics are selected one by one by Nikki herself. “They are cut and sewn by individual men and women in their own homes.” 

Thus, each kaftan “purchased by every woman is practically made especially for her. From start to finish,” Nikki proudly says. 

She likewise credits her time as owner of Galerie Dominique in helping her with Kaftan One. “As a gallery owner, I was also curating works that were really one of a kind, exceptionally created by artists who are now National Artists of the Philippines,” she explains. “In Kaftan One, each kaftan is a genuine work of art. It takes longer to make a three-yard batik fabric (sometimes up to six months) than it takes to paint a painting.” 

Nikki describes every work of art she dealt with for Galerie Dominique as valuable and says it’s also how she treats her kaftans. “Each one is precious,” the Kaftan One points out. “In fact, every ‘defect’ is a statement that it was artistically done by hand and shouldn’t be considered as a defect.”

Of Challenges and Growing Pains

As with any business venture, starting Kaftan One came with its set of challenges that Nikki had to overcome. One of the challenges she faced was insecurity. 

“I was afraid! I think it’s the first time in my life I experienced fear! And I knew that this fear stemmed out of my zero training and zero experience,” she admits candidly. “Imagine, the only things I knew about garments were buying them, having them made, and wearing them.” 

Nikki says that she was eventually able to overcome this challenge when friends began buying kaftans from her, as it gave her much-needed confidence. “And I thought, if friends would buy my kaftans, I can reach out to others I did not know. And they’d like my kaftans too,” the former politician says. “My first 25 customers were all it took. The die was cast.”

Another challenge she had to deal with had to do with manufacturing, as she did not want to open a brick-and-mortar shop and hire people in the middle of the lockdown. Instead, Nikki ended up calling former seamstresses, as well as friends who could recommend women and men to cut and sew for her. 

Since she did not want to open a physical store for Kaftan One, where selling her garments soon became a concern, Nikki recalls bracing herself and mustering enough courage to call a friend who owns a department store catering mostly to women in the A and B markets. It was none other than Nedy Tantoco, who gave Nikki a prime spot in Rutan’s Makati and Shangri-La.

“Most of my insecurities faded away the moment Rustan’s accepted Kaftan One into their store,” Nikki says. “The continuous appreciation of women and men further strengthened my resolve to keep going with the end in view of moving forward and upward.” 

Women Empowering Women

Throughout her journey starting and running Kaftan One, Nikki found herself both giving and receiving help from different women. Aside from Nedy Tantoco, she also mentions designer Michele Sison, who helped her by introducing her to people who can cut and sew fabrics.

When asked about it is for women to help one another—especially in business—Nikki says that doing so is very important. “Women can understand the challenges and roadblocks to success. Women understand the realities in a particular society. Women know firsthand how lip service to women’s positive traits, more often than not, remains lip service,” she points out.

“Women experience having to do all the work and hardly share the benefits. Women know how things can be stacked against them,” she adds.

“As a woman, I would not want to be simply put on a pedestal to gawk at. I would like to have both feet on the ground—supported by institutions and society to contribute productively to society, to make a name for myself, and to be financially stable and independent to pursue my own dream and ambitions,” she declares. “If women would genuinely support other women, especially in business, this would not remain wishful thinking. It would become [a] reality.”

Nikki Coseteng: 70 is the New 40

The ups and downs of starting a business, especially in an industry many describe as demanding, may be daunting and exhausting for a 70-year-old. Despite this, Nikki reveals that she actually doesn’t feel her age. “Maybe 70 is the new 40,” she quips. “I refuse to think there are deadlines to meet in pursuing a business. I do what I like now. When I’m gone, I’m gone. I don’t think of what happens after.” 

The former senator admits that she sometimes asks questions like “What if I die at 71?” and “What if I live to be 90?” However, she refuses to base decisions on these what-ifs, saying that it would cause her to miss out on the best times of her life. 

“I would never allow it to happen,” Nikki maintains. “When I started Kaftan One, I felt like it was something I’d like to do for a long, long time. I hope I’m given a long time to grow it.” 

When asked what advice she can give those in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s who are still dreaming of pursuing a passion or a business, she encourages them to go for it. “The world is for you to conquer,” she reminds. “All that experience, talent, and energy ought to be put to good use. If you like what you’re doing and earning from it, it would be folly to do nothing about it.” 

“Never say old,” Nikki adds. “One is always at their prime!”

In fact, it may surprise some but, despite already being 70, Nikki still goes around looking for fabrics herself—even going to places like Sri Lanka and Indonesia. “Last October, I was able to get beautiful laces and batiks to last a lifetime,” she shares of her experience. “I was introduced by the Sri Lankan Ambassador of the Philippines to a talented and creative designer, Darshi Keerthisana, from Sri Lanka and I have acquired many fabrics from her.” 

Which ones will go to her seamstresses? It actually depends on Nikki’s mood. “It’s sort of difficult to decide which ones I still want to keep as part of my collection and which ones I will turn into a kaftan to wear or sell,” the Kaftan One owner admits. “What clients can be assured of, is [that] if I won’t wear it, I won’t sell it. I’m still more of a collector than a producer at heart.” 

What’s Next for Nikki Coseteng and Kaftan One?

As much as she loves her kaftans, Nikki is keen to expand her business by sharing another one of her collections. 

“I would like to start sharing my beads collection with women who appreciate and value beads that are strung into exquisite, bespoke necklaces and unique earrings of handmade silver,” she says. “This time, silversmiths and craftspersons are the beneficiaries.” 

She describes her collection, which she started all the way back in high school, as “well-known and much appreciated by those who have seen them.” However, she never sold her beads in the past decades and preferred to collect them for her own use. 

“Each necklace has a story. Some short, others longer. Some funny, some crazy,” she shares. “By opening my collection of necklaces to the public, I would be sharing experiences and stories as well.” 

Nikki did not find it easy to convert pieces from her bead collection to wearable bespoke pieces. “I put a lot of weight on color combinations, appropriate size, proper accessories, and themes. So many things come into play,” she explains. “Even mood, circumstances in life, financial situation, maybe even grief, and joy. The necklaces to me are personal and private. If they could only speak, they would be able to tell many stories.” 

She likewise admits that it’s not easy to part with pieces of her collection, saying that “After almost five decades, these beads have been part of my adolescence and journey into adulthood.” 

Still, Nikki is very proud of her pieces and is looking forward to showing them to others very soon. “For now, perhaps, again, just to a few friends,” she says. “In the hope that they can be appreciated and owned by more women here and around the world.”

Despite her clear excitement for her upcoming line of bespoke necklaces, Nikki has not seen her kaftans and Kaftan One as less of a priority. In fact, she hopes to grow the business so that it can reach other Rustan’s locations in big cities outside of Metro Manila. “I hope other outlets overseas would notice Kaftan One and reach out to me to carry it in their prestigious shops,” Nikki ends.